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Blog July 2020 Updated July 2023

Counting the cost of fibre contamination

A key principle of recycling is that you get out what you put in. Quality in, quality out is a mantra we often hear from reprocessors. It’s a challenge for a paper or card-recycling mill to make it happen.

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Evan Schwartz

Evan Schwartz

Chief Enterprise Architect, AMCS

A key principle of recycling is that you get out what you put in. Quality in, quality out is a mantra we often hear from reprocessors. It’s a challenge for a paper or card-recycling mill to make it happen. Figures vary from country to country, but typically 70-75 per cent of paper and card is recycled in European countries and around 65 per cent in the United States. As the various grades of paper-based products make their way on the recycling journey, these are often mixed with other materials. This is true even where there are specialised containers for collecting paper and cardboard.

For the companies that recycle fibre, understanding and taming contamination is a major business requirement. Doing it well makes a huge difference to the operating margin. Below we look at the root issues and tech solutions.

Changing demands for paper products

Digitalisation has inevitably had an impact on the paper industry, with demand for graphic papers and newsprint now in decline as we read more online. At the same time, retail has also moved onto the web, so the overall demand for fibre continues to grow as packaging volume rises to fulfil the growing number of home deliveries. This has led to major operators in the industry converting mills to reflect the changing demand.

Against this backdrop, concern about climate change has prompted a shift towards a more circular economy, which inevitably means recycling more, as well as more demand for recycled products. So the recovered fibre sector has been experiencing growth.

In recent years, there has also been a consumer push against the use of single-use plastic packaging, encouraging retailers, particularly in the grocery sector, to innovate with fibre-based packaging, though many of the food-based packaging solutions use coatings or films as a barrier.

To tackle this there are now initiatives in different territories, such as the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and 4evergreen, to provide recyclability guidelines and standards for brands committed to making their packaging more eco-friendly.

Today’s export market

Historically, China and other countries in Asia have provided a significant outlet for recovered fibre. Now, due to the poor quality of material, the Chinese Government has banned all “post-consumer” plastics and mixed paper. It has also implemented a 0.5% contamination limit for old corrugated containers (OCC) and some paper grades, with a complete ban on importing mixed papers.

Other markets in Southeast Asia, India and Turkey have taken some of the materials formerly exported to China. However, this is rapidly changing as they also seek to restrict poor quality materials entering their countries, with restrictions on imports now being seen in Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Cambodia, India and Sri Lanka. No country wants to become the next dumping ground for low-quality mixed recycling.

The paper recyclers that own MRFs are now less inclined to get involved in trading fibre as a commodity and instead have returned focus to fibre as a feedstock for their own plants.

The expectation is that paper reprocessors today can handle a wider range of materials, which has certainly widened what might be admitted into the mixed-paper grades.

Different collections systems and the impact on contamination

As export markets for low-quality mixed papers and OCC shrink, the challenge is to reduce contamination. It’s widely recognised that the way dry recycling is collected is the single biggest factor. Collection systems that pick up each type of recyclable separately get better quality feedstock.

Regardless of quality, the pros and cons of whether ‘single-stream versus ‘separation at source’ is the more effective recycling method will continue to be a hotly contested issue in many countries. Municipal collection across most of continental Europe is characterised by paper and card collected in a dedicated bin or container from residential clusters. Conversely, the majority of collections in the US and to a lesser extent the UK favour a commingled approach, with sorting downstream in MRFs.

In the case of the former, this typically results in contamination levels of less than 0.5%, whereas in the case of the latter the quality is much more variable. Although it is considered cheaper to collect, commingled recycling involves the compaction of other dry recyclable materials, such as glass, metal and plastic with the fibre.

Even in the case of separation at source, contamination is an issue and this is growing as the changing composition of the waste stream reflects the changing consumption habits and demands for packaging.

To tackle these challenges, it helps if reprocessors can leverage technology that is built with a deep understanding of these processes.

What contamination means for paper reprocessing

Contaminants in feedstock for a paper or cardboard recycling mill can cause two types of problems, both of which are costly.

First, there is a direct impact on the production process. Either slowing this down or, worse still,  causing damage to the machinery that requires downtime and repair. Losing even a few hours of running time at a mill is a significant cost to owners.

For example, a big issue in some countries is the damage caused by grinds of glass in fibre sourced from MRFs, as it wears down moving parts of the papermaking equipment.

Another direct effect on production is plastic, particularly films, that can be difficult to separate from the fibre in a paper-recycling process, as it gets wrapped around parts of the machinery - again stopping the line.

Second, is the cost of removing and getting rid of contaminants. This is particularly significant in Europe, where governments significantly tax waste. For a company that has paid to buy bales of fibre, then to also pay to dispose of some of this is a big issue. Not only are there direct disposal charges, but also there is administrative time and effort on the shop floor of the mill to deal with this.

Making the grade

To tackle these issues, AMCS has developed its industry-leading ERP software for the paper recycling industry, building on the knowledge acquired working with MRFs.

The platform enables incoming consignments to be split and grade accordingly. When a load arrives, after the weighbridge has automatically logged it onto the system, a banksman or spotter can review it using the AMCS cloud software on a mobile device. Moisture readings can be inputted as well as quality grading, so if needed any weight deductions due to water content can go straight onto the supplier invoice.

Specific types of contaminants can be entered into the system along with photographs taken on the spot using the mobile device. All this data can then be provided back to the supplier, creating an invaluable feedback loop. This process means a mill is able to advise efficiently if there are deductions to be made from the invoice to the supplier, with documented evidence.

No reprocessor wants to mark down the price on this basis, but it means the cost of contamination is offset with little back office admin. It also provides a fibre supplier with essential information to manage their education efforts with the public or its customers. Knowing the contamination is a necessary first step for tackling the problem.

A profile of each supplying company or government authority providing the material is created, with a historical record of previous consignments. This enables managers to assign grading work to customers with a poor track record, saving time managing loads of customers known to supply good quality recyclates.

Fit for purpose

We know that contamination has been a major issue affecting paper and card for recycling. By accurately and efficiently identifying the problem, the AMCS solution speeds up the grading process. It means a paper mill and its suppliers are quickly on the same page, ensuring good quality recyclate gets the best price.

It also provides assurance that the inventory is accurate so that operating managers know they have the right inputs for the production line.

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